Before the term blockbuster was invented, Cecil B. DeMille was arguably the first filmmaker to create large scale film productions with “The Ten Commandments” (1923), made on the Central Coast.
Filmed on the dunes near Guadalupe, DeMille’s religious epic was a blend of grandeur and story. It featured the biggest motion picture set ever built, the “City of the Pharaoh.”
When the film was completed, he buried the set in the dunes, and it became a legend until it was unearthed decades later.
The Central Coast Film Society along with partners from the Dunes Center, Guadalupe Visual and Performing Arts Center, SLO International Film Fest and the Clark Center for Performing Arts have collaborated to bring a weekend of events to commemorate DeMille’s film with the Lost City Celebration Oct. 6-8.
“We are so thrilled to be a part of the centennial celebration of Cecil B. DeMille’s ‘The Ten Commandments,'” said Daniel Lahr, executive director of the Film Society. “Not only did the film cement itself into Hollywood legends as the most expensive and lavish production when it was produced, but it became a part of Hollywood lore with what happened after the cameras stopped rolling.”
The ‘Ten Commandments’ Centennial Celebration opens Friday, Oct. 6 with a VIP dinner with documentarian Peter Brosnan, who discovered the dunes; and archeologist Colleen Hamilton who uncovered the film set from the dunes in his film “The Lost City of Cecil B. DeMille.”
The dinner, at $100 per person or $1,000 per table, will be hosted by the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center at the Boys and Girls Club in Guadalupe.
The Central Coast Entertainment Expo on Oct. 7 will present day of workshops with local film industry professionals; hands-on demonstrations; panels with filmmakers; networking and mentor events; and the Central Coast Showcase at the Clark Center for Performing Arts in Arroyo Grande.
The showcase features films by local filmmakers and student film programs, including regional high schools. Included is the documentary screening of “Cecil B. DeMille: American Epic,” an introduction to the legendary filmmaker. This portion of the event is free to the public, thanks to a donation from the Corki Clark Henderson Fiduciary.
The evening will be a ticketed event featuring the history of silent films in the area and their impact on modern day films. Brosnan will talk about his role of uncovering the dunes and there will be a screening of the segment of the film shot in Guadalupe with a live improvised score by cellist Jonah Kim and pianist Sheridan Seyfried.
Tickets for this portion are $35-$45; doors open at 6 p.m.
For the weekend’s Sunday finale, the celebration returns to Guadalupe with a dig site and museum tours starting at 9 a.m. at the Dunes Center. There will also be a documentary film screening and panel discussions at the Boys and Girls Club in Guadalupe. Kids can enjoy an archeological dig, bounce houses and games.
The original film production ran from May 21, 1923 to Aug. 16, 1923. The idea for the film was based on a submission to a contest of public suggestions for DeMille’s next film, and the winner was F.C. Nelson of Lansing, Michigan, according to the Film Foundation.
The film, written by Jeanie MacPherson, is in two parts, the Biblical Prologue and then flashes to modern times (1920s) where the McTavish brothers look to the Old Testament as they grapple with business ethics and fighting for the love of the same woman.
Nearly every resident of Guadalupe participated in the production of “The Ten Commandments,” and DeMille employed every local rancher to use their livestock, according to L. Erika Weber, executive director of the Dunes Center.
“The movie set is still gargantuan relative to today’s productions. It is the only remaining set from Hollywood’s fundamental formation years which set a precedent for today’s blockbuster films and popular culture,” Weber said.
“The Ten Commandments” is No. 7 on the list of all-time worldwide adjusted gross, having earned $2.09 billion.
It premiered in New York at the George M. Cohan Theatre on Dec. 21, 1923, where the lobby displayed an Egyptian-style decor. In Hollywood, the film premiered at Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre on Dec. 4, preceded by a stage show called A Night in Pharaoh’s Palace.
The Film Foundation said the movie got good notices for the Prologue, but the modern story didn’t fare as well. DeMille ended up remaking “The Ten Commandments” as a full-length film in 1956, which is the more famous version with the biblical story only and not the modern scenes, with Charlton Heston as Moses and Yul Brynner as Pharaoh.
DeMille was a founder of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. His film “The Greatest Show on Earth” inspired the 2017 remake, “The Greatest Showman,” that has another Central Coast tie with actor Zac Efron, who is from Arroyo Grande.
“Our grandfather, regarded his 1923 version of ‘The Ten Commandments’ as a turning point in his career,” said Cecilia DeMille Presley. “It was not only the most ambitious production of his first 10 years in Hollywood, but also an immense success and led him to independent production.”
“To celebrate this centenary so near to the production site, and with production relics unearthed by dedicated teams, is a unique tribute to Cecil B. De Mille, his artists, and the historians whose diligence and patience have created this expo,” Presley said.
“The Egyptian sets in the 1923 ‘Ten Commandments’ were the largest movie sets that had been built up to that time,” Presley said. “The walls were 109 feet tall, approached by an avenue of 20 sphinxes, each weighing four tons.
“When grandfather finished filming, he put guards around the set. It would have been easy for another film company to make a ‘quickie’ and then beat him to the theaters before he released The Ten Commandments,” she said.